For wedding planner Mallory Shepard, murder isn't on the agenda . . .
Mallory hopes to unveil her new B&B just in time for her first ceremony as a wedding planner. The renovations to Thistle Park—the mansion she inherited in small-town Port Quincy, Pennsylvania—are almost complete. But what Mallory didn't plan on is the bride's aunt being poisoned at the wedding tasting and her perfect venue becoming a crime scene.
Adding to the mystery is the discovery that this is not the first murder in the bridal family, and as Mallory becomes engaged in her own investigation, she learns the man convicted of the crime may not be guilty. Now she has two crimes to solve before the bride walks down the aisle—but a killer has other plans to ensure that Mallory forever holds her peace . . .
Praise for Engaged in Death
“Had me in its spell from page one. Readers will love this.” —Leslie Meier, New York Times bestselling author
“I had great fun reading the adventures of nouveau sleuth Mallory Shepard as she wrangles corpses, kittens, and a cheating fiancé in this charming debut mystery.” —Laura Levine, author of Murder Has Nine Lives
“[A] cozy combination of mystery, romance, and recipes.” —Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Murder Wears White
By Stephanie Blackmoore
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Stephanie Hayes
All rights reserved.
"So you'll do it?" Whitney Scanlon stared at me with beseeching brown eyes and blinked back a fresh batch of tears. "He only has a couple months left."
Could I do it? Could I move her wedding up eight months and finish renovating my mess of a mansion in time to host her wedding? I looked away from her penetrating gaze and glanced around the room. The furniture in the parlor, including the couch we sat on, was covered with grimy drop cloths. Cans of paint and piles of lumber littered the room. The hum of a buzz saw filled the air, and enough sawdust coated the floor to transform it into a sandy beach. My lead contractor, Jesse Flowers, had promised he'd finish the job by the end of October, and I'd taken his word on it.
I drew in a deep breath, coughed on some dust, and plunged in.
Whitney enveloped me in a swift and fierce hug. "I knew it, I just knew it! My dad will be so happy to walk me down the aisle." Her tears came freely, and I smiled as I returned her embrace.
Jesse ducked under the arched doorway and stuck his head in the room. He gave me an incredulous stare and mouthed, "You're killing me."
I stuck out my tongue over Whitney's shoulder.
"We'll make sure your dad sees you get married." But my assurance faltered when I saw the disorder. It was one thing to promise the B and B would be ready in four weeks. Quite another thing to deliver. At least the weather would cooperate for Whitney. It was a picture-perfect October in Port Quincy, Pennsylvania. Leaves from ginkgo trees fluttered to the ground like golden fortune cookies, and each day the sun hung like a medallion in a brilliant cornflower-blue sky. Mellow smoke from wood-burning fireplaces perfumed the air, and geese practiced for their long flights south. Evenings were crisp and cool and clear, and if I could pull this wedding off, the grounds would be a gorgeous backdrop for a cozy and elegant party. If I could pull it off.
And I would pull it off. Whitney's father was dying. His last wish was to walk his daughter down the aisle, and he wouldn't be around for her original wedding date in June. Hers would be the first wedding held at my work-in-progress B and B, the official launch of my wedding-planning business.
What would have been the first wedding in December was for an exacting bridezilla who was already running me ragged. Just like when I was an attorney, I couldn't cherry-pick my clients. I was delighted to kick off my new career working with a bride like Whitney. No matter that I'd broken out in a cold sweat when she called this morning. I had nowhere acceptable to meet her. In the end, I'd shaken some dust off the couch in the parlor and decided Whitney should know what she was getting into.
I felt dumpy in the makeshift outfit I'd thrown on for my impromptu meeting. I'd shed my dingy overalls and slipped into a wrinkled turquoise sheath dress mere minutes before Whitney's arrival. I'd gained back all of the weight I'd lost for my canceled wedding, and then some, and the dress didn't quite fit.
"I've never seen you in a dress," Jesse had mused as I descended the stairs to meet Whitney. His lined face twisted into an amused smile, as if he'd caught me playing dress-up. The other workers stared at me like I was an alien as I twirled my curly sandy ponytail into a messy bun and jammed my feet into kitten heels. I'd worked alongside them since late summer, and they'd never seen me in anything but cargo pants or filthy denim, with my hair protected under a bandana or baseball cap. I smoothed out some wrinkles in the cotton fabric and vowed to look more presentable for clients.
"Thanks for coming through for me." Whitney beamed, seemingly impervious to the chaos. She dabbed at her mascara with a tissue she'd extracted from her tiny plum purse. Everything about her was diminutive. She was my height, five foot nothing, but much tinier and bird-like. She had delicate features and loose, strawberry-blond curls. She radiated strength, despite her apparent fragility.
"Excuse me, Mallory?" Jesse loomed over me and shattered my reverie. "There's a problem with the bathroom in the green bedroom. I thought you'd like to know. Right now." He must want to grill me for promising this place would be wedding-ready in four weeks.
I shrugged in apology to Whitney.
"It's okay. I'd better get going. I'm so thrilled you can move up the wedding. It means the world to me that my father will be there. You're a lifesaver, Mallory." She rose to her feet and carefully navigated her way around the flotsam and jetsam of hardware in her path to the front hall.
"Let's meet later next week. We'll have a lot to do to plan your wedding in such a short amount of time." I crossed my fingers behind my back and made a wish to magically fix up a professional space amid the mess for meeting with her next time.
Whitney turned back to look at me. Her eyes sparkled, immune to the reality of renovation hell. She turned to leave as the massive front door swung open ahead of her. It was Garrett Davies, the delectable man I'd been seeing. His face brightened when he saw me over Whitney's shoulder, and his warm hazel eyes crinkled at the corners. He held a large brown bag bursting with lunch for me and the contractors. The gentle autumn sun backlit his tall frame, creating a pleasing silhouette. I was about to introduce him to Whitney, but she froze. Then she took a panicked step back and faltered on her high heels. She collided with me, and Garrett dropped the bag, moving forward to steady her. Sandwiches and soup spilled onto the floor. A pumpkin pie wobbled, flipped, and landed with a resounding splat.
"Ouch!" Whitney yelped as a splash of hot liquid marred her suede boots. She stifled a cry and scrambled away from Garrett. "You! What are you doing here?" Her voice was brittle and shrill and threatened to smash into a thousand pieces. She blanched as if she'd seen a ghost and blinked at Garrett in disbelief.
My breath caught in my chest as I saw her initial look of fear turn to pure, white-hot contempt. All of her effervescent happiness was gone, replaced with a deep look of dismay.
Whitney murmured an apology and slipped out the door. Once she'd put some distance between her and Garrett, she seemed to recover enough to feign politeness and call over her shoulder, "Thanks again, Mallory! We'll talk soon." She nearly ran down the drive to her Jetta and didn't look back.
The unfinished B and B hadn't rattled her, but seeing my new beau nearly drove her apoplectic.
"I don't blame her." Garrett tried to salvage what was left of lunch. He crouched down in the hallway in his three-piece suit and mopped up steaming, fragrant puddles of potato and chive soup.
He was one of the few people who could manage to look sexy cleaning up remnants of lunch, and I would've enjoyed the view if I hadn't been so rattled by Whitney's reaction. I wiped the wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches and distributed them to the contractors. My stomach growled as I mourned the loss of half of lunch. Garrett and I settled on the top step of the front porch to dig in. It was a cool day, but the sun warmed our faces and the wind was still.
I couldn't enjoy the weather, remembering Whitney's bizarre behavior. "She nearly fainted when she saw you. I wasn't sure if she was going to deck you or run away."
Garrett put down his turkey on rye and turned to face me. "Ten years ago I defended the man convicted of murdering Whitney's mother." He winced at the word "convicted," no doubt wishing, even now, that there had been a different outcome. Ever the defense attorney, he didn't say the man who murdered Whitney's mother.
"It was my very first homicide case. If I could go back in time, I'd do it all differently. But I knew then, and I know now, that Eugene Newton is innocent. Someone else killed Vanessa Scanlon, and they're probably still at large." He shivered.
"If you believe your client is innocent, then he is." I gently laid my hand on his arm and winced at the toll my attempts at construction had taken. My left thumb was blackened by an ill-aimed hammer, and the skin was rough and raw. I was clumsy, and many hours of working on the house hadn't made me more handy. Mine were hardly the hands of a professional wedding planner.
"But I understand Whit's reaction."
Garrett was still beating himself up about the trial from years ago. Not for the first time, I wished we could spend more time together. I had been busy with the renovation, and Garrett had his own commitments to his cases and his young daughter, Summer. We had yet to go out on an official date, and I doubted we'd spend much time together now that I'd promised to deliver a wedding to Whitney in mere weeks.
Garrett took my hand and shook his head. "That poor girl insisted on attending the whole trial. She was fifteen. Her mother's murder was particularly brutal, and she heard every detail. I couldn't imagine if Summer had to go through something like that. I'll never forget Whitney's face, and I bet she'll never forget mine."
My heart ached for Whitney. But I was still having trouble processing her reaction to Garrett. Did everyone in Port Quincy know about Whitney's mother?
"I don't really know much about this town, do I?" I blurted out. Just once I'd like to know what's going on.
"Give it time. Most people remember Vanessa Scanlon's murder. She disappeared when Whitney was five. Half the town thought she'd run off. The other half thought her husband had killed her and had hidden the body. She wasn't found until ten years later. But there's no way you could've known about it. And maybe Whitney prefers it that way, working with you. It couldn't have been easy growing up here, with everyone thinking her mother had abandoned her, then knowing she was kidnapped and murdered."
"Maybe that's why she lives in Baltimore." I wouldn't have guessed such a sad history for the strong, solid woman I'd met with.
"I hope she'll come back." Garrett resumed his lunch with a frown. "I'd hate to scuttle your first wedding."
"Of course she will! Won't she?" Selfish, selfish, selfish! I mentally chastised myself for thinking of the bottom line instead of Whitney's feelings. But creeping concerns about money eddied through my brain. Fixing up the old ruined mansion had blown my budget out of the water, despite Jesse's skill and frugality. I had a business to run. I needed this wedding. I could host it if the stars aligned and the B and B was finished in time.
"That's not even the biggest problem." I stirred half-and-half into my coffee. "I applied to the Planning Commission to have this property rezoned as commercial from residential, and I haven't heard back yet."
"The Planning Commission?" Garrett rubbed his forehead. "Most people give them several months to get their act together."
I raised my eyebrows. "Their website said they respond to requests in a month."
Garrett shook his head, his eyes incredulous. "That's not how they operate. I'm sure Jesse will back me up on this."
I recalled Jesse's displeasure back in the parlor. "Have you seen Jesse?"
He hadn't viewed the lunch cleanup performance, and I wondered why he'd shaken his head at me.
As if summoned by my thoughts, Jesse burst onto the porch. His six-foot, eight-inch frame would have intimidated me if he wasn't such a softie.
"What were you thinking, Mallory? Are you nuts? There's no way this place will be finished in four weeks!" He took off his Pittsburgh Penguins hat and rolled the brim between his hands. His voice was a surprisingly high tenor for such a bear of a man.
I shimmied around on the top step to face him calmly. "That's not what you said last week. We're right on schedule. Aren't we?" I was used to Jesse's hyperbolic way of speaking. Everything was an emergency, but they were crises that could be fixed immediately.
He defied the stereotype of a contractor, and so far, he'd finished everything on schedule. He had an uncanny knack for anticipating problems and coming up with creative, cost-effective solutions to fix them. I'd been able to hire him after his big fall project had fallen through. I was lucky to have him.
I counted down in my head, three, two, one ... like clockwork, a motorized scooter rolled out the front door and glided up behind the contractor. A tiny woman dressed in a paisley-patterned brown peasant blouse and too-tight tan polyester pants, and wearing large gold hoop earrings, perched imperiously on the scooter's plush red-velvet seat. She sniffed with disapproval.
"You should've checked with Jesse first, before you made that promise." She squinted at me through the bifocals on the tip of her nose. "I knew today would be trouble, I drew the tower card." She sat back with a humph.
"Mother, stay out of it." Jesse rolled his eyes and stuck his large hands into his jeans pockets, instantly transformed from a lumberjack into a sheepish little boy.
I stifled a smile. I'd done a double take when Jesse brought his mother to our initial meeting. I'd wrongly assumed it was a one-time thing. The woman accompanied him everywhere and had spent the last month and a half riding around the house, calling out suggestions and getting underfoot. She fancied herself a fortune teller and read tarot cards for the contractors all day long, in return for them carrying her and her scooter up and down the stairs. She had a cackle like a bag of broken glass, she terrorized my cats, and she made eerie pronouncements that I'd learned to ignore. My sister had come up with an affectionate moniker for Delilah Flowers: the Witch on Wheels.
"I told you to not take on this job. I had a bad feeling about this, but you never listen!" Delilah crooked her finger with its heavy onyx ring and jabbed it at her son. She couldn't be more than ninety pounds soaking wet, and I wondered, not for the first time, how she had produced giant Jesse. But they had the same wiry gray hair, close-set amber eyes, and aquiline nose. She paused and scrutinized me from head to toe. "You should wear dresses more often, Mallory."
"Thanks, Delilah." I tried to be polite. I didn't want to encourage her. I had my own mother to razz me about dressing too much like a tomboy.
Delilah scooted off in a huff and left me to giggle in her patchouli-infused wake.
Jesse's broad shoulders relaxed, and he turned back to me. He'd stopped apologizing for her weeks ago. "Things were on track before I found the rotting subfloor this morning in your apartment while you met with the bride. She must be crazy or desperate to want to get married here in four weeks."
The latest gulp of hot coffee went down the wrong pipe, and I sputtered and set the cup aside. The floor had always felt a little squishy.
"The third-story floor will add another week, easy. Your brand-new water heater doesn't work, and it'll be days before they send a replacement. The existing radiators are too small to heat the bedrooms, just as I suspected, so we'll need to convert the wood-burning fireplaces to direct-vent gas ones or electric inserts. The three muralists I contacted about the parlor ceiling? None of them are free until spring. I can finish the basics in time for the December wedding, but for this new one? No way."
I became light-headed and steadied myself against a railing.
"But I thought we were running ahead!" I motioned around me. "And Whitney's wedding takes priority over the third floor." Renovations to the outside of the house were finished weeks ago. Jesse had restored the house to its original, heavy-cream parchment color. There was enough gingerbread trim to outfit a Bavarian bakery, and Jesse had the intricate swirls and curlicues painted verdigris, butter yellow, and slate blue, changing the wrought iron and wood into delicate, colorful lace. The place was transformed from a peeling dump into a warm, inviting house that looked like a wrapped present. And Jesse was a genius, designing on the fly, in addition to making the place shipshape and up to code. He'd surprised me with a thistle weathervane atop the widow's walk on the tallest mansard tower, a nod to the house's official name, Thistle Park. He'd added smaller weathervanes to the greenhouse and carriage house, and those structures, together with the mansion, reminded me of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria majestically floating atop the wide green lawn. He'd said the place would be finished within the month, and I'd believed him.
"You can't plan for the unexpected, Mallory. And this house ..." He scratched his scalp, where his hair had worn away. "It's full of surprises."
Excerpted from Murder Wears White by Stephanie Blackmoore. Copyright © 2017 Stephanie Hayes. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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